The situation in Ukraine as of this morning remains as fluid and full of uncertainties as it was when yesterday when caution persuaded me to pause and turn my attention to a sobering CCP Virus milestone.
But one feature of the conflict is becoming clear, and if it holds much longer, opens up the distinct possibility that the major assumptions that have animated U.S. policy toward European security merit major rethinking.
That feature: Ukraine is proving to be a much tougher military challenge for Russia than anyone, including me, expected. It’s still not entirely certain why. But even the explanations most favorable to Moscow and Russian military prowess – that Vladimir Putin decided to go gradual for fear of destroying the infrastructure of a country his regime will eventually need to run, or of needlessly enflaming the occupied population to the point of triggering an insurgency with staying power, or some combination of the two – lead (logically, anyway) to these potentially game-changing conclusions: that Russia is too weak to bend countries of any decent size to its will, and that there’s no reason to believe it will acquire the necessary power in the policy relevant future.
In other words, it’s one thing to take control over two tiny enclaves of a very small neighbor like Georgia (2008), or to seize a part of Ukraine with a sizable ethnic Russian population (Crimea in 2014), or to use local proxies to challenge on the cheap Ukrainian sovereignty over an eastern region also full of Russian speakers, or even to march into and annex two provinces of this Donbass region.
But using force to turn the rest of Texas-sized Ukraine with its population of more than 40 million people into a Russian satellite? That’s obviously been a much taller order.
And even if superior Russian troop numbers and weaponry ultimately do achieve their apparent near-term goal of replacing Volodymyr Zelensky’s government with pro-Moscow puppets, and thereby the longer-term goal of keeping Ukraine out of NATO, these results will seriously challenge the views of folks like me (most recently, here), who had credited Russia with enough power to bring into a sphere of influence Ukraine – along with smaller neighbors, like the rest of Georgia plus Moldova (neither of which belongs to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO), and even the three Baltic states that are NATO members.
After all, as mentioned above, keeping control over Ukraine alone may well seriously drain lots of Russian military power, and further strain an economy that’s not exactly a powerhouse to begin with. And if even the old Soviet leaders eventually found keeping Afghanistan not worth the candle, in part because public anger over casualties kept mounting, will Putin really be able to demonstrate greater staying power in Ukraine? Much less simultaneously keep the clamps on other small neighbors? Much less achieve the same objectives vis-a-vis larger Eastern European countries like Poland? Much less even credibly threaten anyone in Western Europe?
But if the more optimistic Ukraine scenario plays out, that would mean that the mainstream, globalist foreign policy leaders and thinkers who view keeping that country free of Russian control, and even bringing it into NATO, as essential for America’s security have been wrong as well – precisely because severe limits on Russian power are becoming increasingly obvious. Unless a Russia that can’t pose a military threat to Western Europe can pose one to the United States?
Russian failure or overly costly success in Ukraine even undercuts arguments that the militarily dominant, or any major, American role in NATO remains crucial. On the one hand, it’s true that, Russia has attacked non-NATO member Ukraine but not NATO allies like Poland and the Baltics. So Putin surely sees a big difference between countries to whose defense the alliance is committed (including with recent deployments of U.S. and other members’ military forces), and those outside the NATO umbrella.
But does that mean that the United States must still remain the kingpin, and contribute an outsized (and very expensive) share of the alliance’s military might? And continue to extend a nuclear shield over Europe – which of course creates a risk of nuclear war with Russia? Maybe not, especially upon considering the West European NATO members’ response to the Ukraine invasion.
Specifically, it’s been much stronger than I and most others expected, too. And the German response has been most revealing of all. After decades of being the alliance’s worst military free-rider, and skimping on its defense budget to the point that a top general just called his forces “more or less bare,” new Chancellor Olaf Scholz has now vowed a big increase in military spending and promised not only that Germany will hit the goal of members’ defense budgets representing two percent of their economies, but exceed it. Moreover, the entire European Union (EU), whose membership overlaps considerably with NATO’s, is now finally recognizing how dangerously moronic they’ve been in boosting their dependence on Russian fossil fuel supplies.
What this seems to demonstrate is that once the Europeans (many of whom have free-ridden militarily themselves) perceive a sharp enough threat to their own safety and independence and well-being, they change profoundly. They begin to act less like cunning and not-so-reliable protectorates determined to gain any benefits they can from Russia in full confidence that America will shield them from any dangers, and more like countries that recognize that their best bets for security and prosperity are their own considerable resources.
By the way, these resources include not only the wealth to field much larger conventional militaries, but French and British nuclear forces. So NATO’s European members should be able not only to deter Russia conventionally, but at the strategic nuclear level as well. And if they deem those nuclear forces inadequate to the task, they can build more
Just as important, this European awakening seems at least partly due to a dawning recognition that for a wide variety of reasons (e.g., America’s preoccupation with its internal problems, its supposedly unreliable recent political leadership, its higher prioritization of Asia, its resentment at being played), historic U.S. enabling can no longer be taken for granted.
All of which means that the American response should be not devoting more of its military strength to deterring or countering Russia in Europe, moving still more conventional forces to Eastern Europe, or unleashing a new round of rhetoric declaring its own vital, ironclad, and undying stakes in the continent’s security, but encouraging these trends – and especially appreciating the opportunity to let itself off the nuclear hook.
This doesn’t mean that the United States should make no contributions to Europe’s defense. But whatever assistance is proposed to the American political system should be clearly described to the public (and to the Europeans) as a policy of choice, not of necessity, and should be flexible enough to enable the nation to opt out of a conflict on the continent if it so decides, not trapped into one, as is potentially the case now. Indeed, as I’ve written, that danger could all too easily still result from the Ukraine war, because non-negligible U.S. forces are now deployed close to the actual fighting.
In 1919, American journalist John Reed came out with a book describing first-hand the Bolshevik Revolution of two years before called Ten Days that Shook the World. I’m sure not yet certain that this first week of the Ukraine war will turn into seven days that shook the strategic and geopolitical worlds. (And I certainly hope that the above scenarios turn out to be more accurate than Reed’s sunny expectations of Soviet communism.) But American leaders focused on their own country’s genuinely vital interests shouldn’t overlook the possibility.